Report: Climate Threatens Security

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A new classified intelligence assessment finds that climate change could threaten U.S. security interests abroad in the next 20 years — causing political instability, mass waves of refugee movement, terrorism, and conflicts over water and other resources.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Melting icecaps, extreme flooding, searing heat waves, that's what most scientists and environmentalists say we have to look forward to in the next 20 years, thanks to global warming. But climate change could also have geopolitical fallout, including serious threats to national security, like outbreaks of regional wars, collapsing governments, mass migration of refugees. That's according to a 58-page intelligence assessment that was presented to Congress by the country's top intelligence agencies this week. The report is classified but the top intelligence official revealed some of its contents as he testified before Congress yesterday.

Joining us to go over some of the scenarios in the report is Sherri Goodman. She's the executive director of the Military Advisory Board of the CNA Corporation, which is a Pentagon-funded think tank that did a very similar study last year on climate change and national security. Sherri, thanks for joining us.

Ms. SHERRI GOODMAN (Executive Director, Military Advisory Board, CNA Corporation): Thank you.

MARTIN: You chaired that CNA report that was released a year ago. The report was called National Security and the Threat of Climate Change. You say many of those findings are validated in this new report that was put to Congress this week. Now, I have some questions about how these reports are compiled. NPR security correspondent, Tom Gjelton, pointed out on a report this week that this intelligence assessment presented to Congress this week, this was based on an estimate. It's not base on hard data. So, how do you go about putting a report like this together? How do you estimate the effects of climate change on global security?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, you start with the widely accepted and internationally validated work of scientists, hundreds of scientists, through the IPCC, the International Panel on Climate Change, that has provided the best scientific evidence to date and on which the U.S. government relies for its work.

From there, you take a variety of other analyses that have been done to look at sea-level rise, water scarcity, coastal inundation, migratory patterns of people and various models, and use those to look at what the effects on human populations will be over time, and to understand what those security implications might be, in terms of potential damage to infrastructure in coastal regions, flooding to displace peoples, water scarcity, for which some parts of the world we have pretty good data and other parts less.

MARTIN: Let's talk, Sherri - if I can interrupt you. Let's talk a little bit about what those - what the repercussions would be of those environmental or those climate-related situations could be on security. People are talking about hunger. As many as 50 million people could face hunger by the year 2020, according to Tom Fingar who - of the National Intelligence for Analysis, deputy director of that group, gave testimony on that. As crops dry up, water supplies are stressed. How does that impact global security?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, when people have less access to food and water, they become desperate. That's when populations move in search of more food and water to sustain them, create unstable situations in places that may already fragile because they have weak or failing governments, low economic productivity.

And so, when you add climate change as another stressing factor to an already complicated situation, it could create various tipping points that move large populations into regions, as we already see, large migration of people from Bangladesh into India. Bangladesh, an example, very low lying coastal area with a significant storm surge or flooding could send 10 of millions more people fleeing to higher to ground.

MARTIN: Is there - obviously one of the greatest security concerns right now is the threat of terrorism. Is there - can you make a link? Is there a direct connection between climate change and the rise of terrorism, terrorist threats?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, the link isn't so much direct as it is that climate change acts almost like a Petri dish to...

(Soundbite of telephone dialing)

MIKE PESCA, host:

Well, that's something, huh?

MARTIN: Sherri is redialing someone accidentally on her phone.

Ms. GOODMAN: Uh...

PESCA: There we go.

MARTIN: Oh, she's back.

Ms. GOODMAN: Oh, yes. I'm here. So...

MARTIN: You want to finish your thought about the connection between climate change and terrorism?

Ms. GOODMAN: Yes. Climate change acts as a sort of Petri dish to exacerbate the conditions that cause terrorism by putting people in desperate situations where they are more vulnerable to those who would try to create strife and to turn people away from stable regimes.

MARTIN: Last question. Sherri, how is the military - now that it comes to this realization that there is a nexus, there is a connection, between climate change and global security threats, what do they do with that information? What kind of changes need to be made?

Ms. GOODMAN: Great question. Well, now that we understand that, we can act now to sort of prevent some of these destabilizing conditions from occurring in the future by taking preventative steps today, by developing more sustainable approaches to the way we do foreign assistance, trade and agricultural policies, to the way we think about humanitarian operations, and global engagement of the United States, both to revitalize our own leadership, and also to help build a more stable future.

MARTIN: Sherri Goodman is the executive director of the Military Advisory Board of the CNA Corporation, which is a Pentagon-funded think tank. She does a lot of work on the connection between global climate change and global security issues. Sherri, thanks very much for sharing your research with us. We appreciate it.

Ms. GOODMAN: Thank you.

PESCA: And we should put this out there for all future guests of the BPP. Unlike "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?," there is no phone-a-friend segment for our questions. You're going to have to handle them yourself. Just be forewarned. This is the Bryant Park Project for NPR News.

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